dianoigo blog
Showing posts with label logic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label logic. Show all posts

Monday 27 August 2018

Why the Trinity Just Doesn’t Make Sense to Christadelphians

Guest Article by Matthew J. Farrar


The denial of the Trinity doctrine is arguably one of the strongest identity markers of Christadelphians.1   Christadelphian arguments against the Trinity typically follow one of three lines:2
  1. Jesus is not the Father and is therefore not God.
  2. Jesus is a man and is therefore not God.
  3. The Trinity is inconsistent with the Scriptures' absolute insistence on monotheism.
The first objection is actually based on an erroneous conflation of Modalism3—a doctrine holding that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three modes of operation of a single divine person—with the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, which holds that there are three distinct, eternal persons who share a Divine nature. The second objection similarly conflates the doctrine of Christ’s Divinity with a denial of His humanity, whereas orthodox Christology emphatically affirms Christ’s humanity.4

However, in conversations with Christadelphians—and indeed my own experience as a former Christadelphian—by far the most compelling arguments against the Trinity are based on the third issue of monotheism. Undoubtedly, the Scriptures insist on an uncompromising monotheism.5 It therefore appears that the Trinity doctrine is a violation of basic common sense: if God is one, then God cannot be three, and if He is three, He cannot be one. An answer in The Christadelphian Advocate's Question Box feature succinctly exemplifies this objection:
The Bible is so clear on this matter it is a puzzle as to how anyone can conclude anything about a godhead consisting of three beings, acting independently of each other yet still together, as one single being. The idea that the three were co-existent as well as co-equal and each a part of the Supreme Being destroys the beauty of the Father/Son relationship that is so emphatically detailed in the Scriptures.
The objection is clear enough: to say that three beings are actually one being is a contradiction, and a rather obvious one at that. So why is it that orthodox Christians hold to this doctrine when it seems to be at odds with basic common sense?

An Important Assumption

What is tacitly assumed but not acknowledged in the Christadelphian line of reasoning is that the God of the Bible is rightly understood to be a being. That is to say, there are many beings (e.g. angels, humans, animals), and God is regarded as another being, albeit a unique and supreme Being who exceeds all other beings in power, knowledge, wisdom, goodness, etc. It is precisely under this assumption that the Christadelphian argument against the Trinity are so compelling: 
  1. A "being" is the broadest classification possible.
  2. Therefore, distinct persons are beings.
  3. "God" is a being.
  4. Therefore "God" is either one person and one being or three persons and three beings. He cannot be three persons but one being.
  5. Since the Scriptures affirm that God is One (being), the Trinity is false.
So how is it that the Church came to affirm the Trinity doctrine despite this glaring problem? The answer lies in that the Church does not consider God to be a being, but rather, being itself.

Nominalism: The Roots of a Theological Revolution

Believe it or not, the roots of this issue go back to the 14th century, a time prior to but very influential on the Reformation. This era ushered in a new philosophical position known as nominalism, a philosophy that is widely held—though seldom explicitly recognized—today. At its core, nominalism denies the real existence of universals. To understand what a universal is, consider the drawing below.

We would all quickly identify this drawing as a triangle, but on what basis? There are two basic answers to this question. The first is that there is a universal triangle, of which this particular triangle is a manifestation or instantiation. In other words, something is a triangle in the measure that it conforms to the universal triangle. The second answer—that of nominalism—is that there are simply a collection of objects which we call “triangles”, and this happens to be one of them. However, nominalists would claim that this classification is more or less one of convenience and therefore there is no such thing as the essential nature of a triangle.

To see the impact of this thinking in our own day, consider two hot-button issues: marriage and gender. Those who believe that universals are real—called realists—hold that heterosexual marriage and gender (male and female) are real universals. As such, a particular marriage is an actual marriage in the measure that it conforms to this universal and is a particular instantiation of it. Similarly, realists hold that a man is a man on the basis that he is an instantiation of a particular universal, namely, a male nature (and similarly for a woman).

In contrast, the nominalist perspective asserts that there are merely a collection of relationships called “marriages.” Therefore, to redefine marriage beyond monogamous heterosexual marriage is simply to broaden the usage of the word “marriage”. Similarly, “man” and “woman” are mere labels applied to groups of persons, and so the labels can be applied differently or new labels may be created as needed.

Now since nominalists deny the existence of universals, and natures are universals, it follows that nominalists deny the existence of natures. Thus, under this rubric there is no universal human nature (i.e. humanity) of which all human beings are instantiations; there are simply a collection of beings that we call “humans” just as there are three-sided objects that we call triangles. More to the point, if there is no such real thing as a nature, then there is also no such thing as a real divine nature: only a being we call “God,”6 and the phrase “the divine nature” simply becomes a shorthand for His personal attributes. Consequently, to acknowledge three divine persons is necessarily to acknowledge three divine beings, since “divine” and “persons” are again merely labels and “being” is simply the least restrictive classification possible.

Since Christadelphians—like most of the Western World—tend to be involuntary nominalists with respect to their conception of God,7 8 the Trinity doctrine appears to present an insurmountable contradiction. Nominalist Trinitarians attempt to circumvent a contradiction by false appeals to the mystery of the doctrine,9 while Christadelphians deny the mystery of the doctrine by appeals to the contradiction.

But what if we reject nominalism in the first place?

God is Being itself, not one being among many

Since nominalism was an innovation of the 14th century, it follows that the formulators of the Trinity doctrine in the first five centuries of the Church were not and could not have been nominalists. For example, the Nicene Creed states that Jesus is “one in substance/essence/nature with the Father.” Of course, this formulation necessarily assumes that natures are real! Even the Arians of the 4th Century—those opposing the divinity of Christ at the First Council of Nicea—did not dispute the real existence of natures, but instead argued that Christ was of a different, inferior nature from that of the Father. Semi-Arianism, a subsequent attempt at a compromise position, declared the Son to be of “like nature” (homoiousios) to the Father rather than of the same nature (homoousios) as the Nicene Creed affirmed.10 Thus, opponents of Christ's true divinity in the fourth century were not raising the so-called “common sense” objections outlined above.

Moreover, if nominalism is rejected, then we may also reasonably deny that God is one being among other beings.11 Instead, following the revelation of the divine name, “I AM” (Exodus 3:14), the Church teaches that God is "the act of to be" itself.12 Thus, while I am a being, God is being itself. If this sounds unfathomable, perhaps we have not taken God’s transcendence seriously enough. God is not merely greater than us by degree but is utterly beyond us, of a different order. If the notion that “God is being itself” seems too abstract to grasp, consider by analogy the assertion that “God is love” (1 John 4:16). The Biblical claim is not merely that “God is extremely loving” or “God has a lot of love”; love is not merely an abstract attribute that exists apart from God and that God has more of than anyone else. Love is essential to God’s nature, and does not exist apart from God. We are capable of love only because God has shared his love with us (1 John 4:19). The same is true of being, of existence. God is not merely a supreme being, i.e. one who has the attribute of existence (and other dependent attributes such as power, wisdom and love) in greater quality or quantity than others. Rather, God is existence; nothing exists except from him and through him and for him (Rom. 11:36; Heb. 2:10).

Given this understanding of God, the “common sense” rejection of the Trinity no longer holds for the following reasons. 

First, monotheism is actually a consequence of this understanding, not a condition imposed upon it. While we cannot truly comprehend what it means for God to be “to be itself”, it’s simply impossible to have more than one sheer act of being itself. Thus, it is rigorously consistent with Scriptural affirmations of monotheism.

Second, the key tenets of the Trinity doctrine—that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are co-eternal and co-equal in nature—also follow directly from this understanding of God. It would be a contradiction in terms to say, for example, that the Son is the sheer act of being but not co-eternal with the Father, who is also the sheer act of being. Nor would it be possible to say that the Son is co-eternal with the Father but not the sheer act of being, since that would mean that a being exists always with being itself, which is also a contradiction. Thus, the doctrine that God is “to be itself” and the joint doctrines of consubstantiality (i.e. the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have the same nature) and co-eternality are logical consequences, not additionally imposed doctrines.

Finally—and most importantly for the present discussion—the existence of distinct divine persons is no longer equated with the existence of distinct divine beings. Rather, within the divine nature (i.e. the sheer act of to be) we can discern three distinct persons, but at no point are there any beings involved, only the act of to be itself. Do we really comprehend what that means? No, and that is why the doctrine is truly and properly called a mystery. However, the contradiction suggested by the original argument is dissolved.

Concluding Remarks

The philosophical system of nominalism developed in the late Middle Ages, long after the creedal statements surrounding the Trinity doctrine were constructed, but its popularity—especially amongst the Reformers—was widespread. Not surprisingly then, Christadelphian objections to the Trinity doctrine on the basis of “common sense” appeals to Scriptural statements of absolute monotheism tacitly—if not unwittingly—assume an underlying nominalist philosophy, namely that God is one being amongst many other beings. This is an important observation since some Christadelphians (perhaps relying on Col. 2:8)13 view “philosophy” as a by-word, a distraction to be avoided. What this article has shown, however, is that all of us—Christadelphians included—engage in philosophy and what we may prefer to call “common sense” actually rests on our own philosophical presuppositions. My hope is that a greater awareness of this philosophical framework will open channels of future discourse.
  • 1 Though not entirely unique. Biblical Unitarians essentially agree entirely with Christadelphians on this point, while Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Oneness Pentecostals share in the denial of the Trinity doctrine but do not share in Christadelphian theology and/or Christology. The Christadelphian doctrine of God underwent considerable evolution in the early period of the movement. The founder of the sect, Dr. John Thomas, held a somewhat ineffable doctrine of God that he thought was captured by the Greek word phanerĊsis. While Dr. Thomas's ideas still have currency with some Christadelphians, the main stream of the movement has long since moved toward something closer to Socinianism or (biblical) Unitarianism—doctrines that Dr. Thomas emphatically repudiated!
  • 2 For example, see here.
  • 3 This view is also known as Sabellianism because it was taught by Sabellius, a 3rd-century priest. He was excommunicated for his teaching by Pope Callixtus I.
  • 4 Refer to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed defined at the fourth-century ecumenical councils of Nicea and Constantinople, and the Christological Definition reached at the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon.
  • 5 Historians of religion debate exactly when monotheism developed in Israelite religion; some earlier texts may suggest a belief closer to henotheism (allegiance to only one God, without necessarily denying the existence of others—see, e.g., Psalm 95:3). In any case, strong exclusive claims about “one God” that are synonymous with monotheism are present in Second Temple Jewish texts and in the New Testament (e.g., Mark 12:32).
  • 6 Granted, a very impressive being, even a Supreme Being. However, this being differs from us only in degree (e.g. we have limited power, while God has unlimited power) not by nature, since nominalists deny the existence of natures.
  • 7 As evidenced by the quotation above which starts from the use of the word “beings.”
  • 8 I wish to be clear that I do not mean this disparagingly. My point is merely that certain philosophical presuppositions are present in all arguments.
  • 9 This was blatantly the case in the writings of William of Ockham.
  • 10 Semi-Arianism was condemned at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D., but by that time the three Cappadocian Fathers (St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzus, and St. Gregory of Nyssa) had succeeded through theological dialogue in persuading most of the Semi-Arians to return to the catholic faith.
  • 11 To be precise, while other beings have a real nature, we rightly say that God is His nature. In other words, I, as a human being, am a particular instantiation of a human nature. God, on the other hand, is not an instantiation of a divine nature, but rather, He is the divine nature.
  • 12 Ipsum esse subsistens, in the Latin of St. Thomas Aquinas.
  • 13 Of course, Paul does not here condemn philosophy itself, but only philosophy that is contrary to Christ and therefore false. Paul’s own willingness to enter into philosophical discourse is on vivid display in the account of his speech at the Areopagus (Acts 17). For a defense of the use of Greek philosophy by the early Church, see here.

Wednesday 20 September 2017

The Incarnation: Contradiction or paradox?

"The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation," writes philosophical theologian Brian Hebblethwaite, "is one of the two central doctrines which set out the unique features of Christian faith in God."1 Hebblethwaite goes on to explain that while many religions believe in an infinite and transcendent God and make possible rich spiritual experiences, Christianity goes further in asserting that 
God has made himself known more fully, more specifically and more personally, by taking our human nature into himself, by coming amongst us as a particular man, without in any way ceasing to be the eternal and infinite God.2
The classic, dogmatic statement of the Incarnation doctrine comes from the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.).3 The doctrine contains three fundamental ontological claims: (i) Jesus Christ is truly man; (ii) Jesus Christ is truly God; (iii) Jesus Christ is one person and not two. Opponents of the Incarnation doctrine call it a contradiction, while proponents call it a paradox. What is the difference? A contradiction is a combination of mutually exclusive ideas, like a square circle, or the mathematical statements x > y and x < y. A paradox is an apparent contradiction that may not really be a contradiction. Take, for example, the saying, "Less is more." This saying is paradoxical since the words "less" and "more" are antonyms, but one can readily appreciate the wisdom of the saying (consider, for instance, the decision whether to offer a short speech or a long speech at a wedding.) Or which of us has never heard someone answer a yes-or-no question with "Yes and no"? We do not typically conclude that the respondent is irrational; we suspect that they perceive complexity and nuance in the question that requires a multi-faceted answer. In a word, they perceive a paradox.

The apparent contradictions in the Incarnation's three fundamental ideas are immediately obvious. First, whereas all other known persons are constituted by one nature, this doctrine affirms that Jesus Christ has two natures and yet remains only one person. Second, for specifically divine and human natures to co-exist in a single person seems contradictory, since we associate properties with "divinity" and "humanity" respectively that seem mutually exclusive (e.g., eternal vs. created, immortal vs. mortal, omniscient vs. limited in knowledge, omnipresent vs. locally present, etc.) However, as philosophical theologian Oliver Crisp points out,
we cannot know a priori that the two-natures doctrine is incoherent without first establishing (a) exactly what the constituents of divinity and humanity consist in (or, perhaps better, what divinity and humanity do not consist in), and (b) that these constituents are mutually exclusive of one another.4
Unfortunately, Christadelphians and members of certain other heterodox, sectarian movements commonly do dismiss the Incarnation doctrine a priori as logically incoherent. Indeed, I used to take this dismissive view of the Incarnation myself. My advice to those who consider the Incarnation a basic contradiction unworthy of serious thought is, not so fast. Here I will list four reasons why the logic of the Incarnation demands serious attention.

(1) The Incarnation doctrine has an impressive historical pedigree.

The statement from the Council of Chalcedon that definitively expressed Incarnational Christology was the fruit of over four centuries of intense theological reflection, discussion and controversy involving the entire Church. The resolution achieved at Chalecdon has stood the test of time, too. It has been the touchstone of Christological orthodoxy for over fifteen centuries and remains such among Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans and most Protestant denominations. Indeed, all forms of ancient Christianity that have survived affirm the Incarnation,5 and with the exception of some post-Reformation sectarian movements, all contemporary professedly-Christian groups affirm the Incarnation.

This history, read with a basic principle of respecting elders, forebears and authority,6 ought to make us at least think twice before dismissing the Incarnation as an obvious contradiction. If the Incarnation is basically a stupid idea, how did the entire Church by the fifth century come to a consensus that it was the best Christological synthesis? And how could an obvious contradiction achieve such staying power? It is remarkable, given the heated Christological controversies of the first four centuries of Christianity, that the ecumenical consensus achieved in the fifth century on Incarnational Christology should remain the ecumenical consensus over 1500 years later.7

(2) The Incarnation remains a respectable idea in the academic sphere.

Numerous theologians in Church history have masterfully defended Incarnational Christology (Origen, St. Augustine, St. John of Damascus, St. Anselm of Canterbury, St. Thomas Aquinas, etc.) However, for some sectarians, the Church's theological tradition between, say, 200 and 1500 A.D. is shrouded in darkness and superstition, whereas the achievements of modern academic scholarship blaze brightly. While I could say much against this chronocentrism, I would hasten to add that in the contemporary academy the Incarnation has not been relegated to obscurity. It remains an idea worthy of serious attention among philosophical theologians. For example, no less a publisher than Oxford University Press produced a volume of essays in this decade entitled The Metaphysics of Incarnation exploring the philosophical viability of the Incarnation from a variety of perspectives.8 OUP doesn't publish edited volumes debating the merits of obsolete, Mickey Mouse ideas. Several of the contributors to this volume, and many other scholars, have separately published philosophically rigorous defenses of Incarnational Christology.9

Of course, there are also accomplished academics who reject the philosophical viability of the Incarnation. My claim is not that the mere existence of rigorous philosophical defenses of the Incarnation in contemporary academia vindicates the truth of the doctrine a priori.10 One would really need to be trained in philosophy—which I am not—to engage critically with this scholarly debate. However, the existence of the debate at least shows that the Incarnation cannot be dismissed a priori as logically incoherent.

(3) Paradox plays an indispensable part in Christian theology.

Christian theology is inescapably paradoxical. Take eschatology for instance: biblical scholars today widely agree that New Testament eschatology can be summed up with the obviously paradoxical phrase "already and not yet." The kingdom of God, the new age, has arrived and yet it is still coming. One can point to numerous other theological paradoxes whereby seemingly contradictory ideas are held in tension: grace and merit, faith and works, sin and mercy, predestination and free will, and so on. There are also numerous paradoxes within the Bible pertaining to God's nature and character. That God is apparently gentle and loving in the New Testament but warlike and severe in the Old spawned heresies in antiquity (Marcionism) and provides fodder for skeptics today. The perennial problem of evil represents a paradox in Christian theology: the prevalence of natural and moral evil in the world today appears to conflict with the existence of an omnipotent, perfectly good and perfectly loving God.

The New Testament contains, of course, blatant paradoxes specifically in the area of Christology. A crucified Messiah? A crucified Saviour? "A stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles," says Paul (1 Cor. 1:23). The Gospel of John is so audacious as to interpret Jesus's physical "lifting up" on the cross as his "lifting up" in the sense of exaltation as foretold in Isa. 52:13 (cf. John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32). So is New Testament Christology paradoxical? Absolutely. We should not be surprised, then, to find paradox in core Christian dogma about God and Christ.

(4) Non-Incarnational Christologies also face philosophical difficulties.

Many liberal theologians and some sectarians (e.g., Christadelphians) assert that Jesus was/is merely human, that is, ontologically no greater than any other human. (Of course, those who affirm a literal resurrection would assert that Jesus's human nature is now superior to ours.) Proponents perceive this as the simplest and most logical Christology. After all, every other human known to history has been "merely human." However, those who see a "merely human" Christology as the default or natural option may overlook that it is not without philosophical problems. Consider just a few:

i. By all accounts, human conception is an ontologically significant event. Does Jesus's unique human conception in the womb of a virgin not therefore have ontological significance? If so, what is the ontological significance of the virgin birth?
ii. Is the exalted Jesus omnipresent? If not, how does he function as mediator between God and humans? If so, how can a physical, bodily person be omnipresent?
iii. How is it that Jesus was sufficiently like us that he experienced the same frailties and temptations we face, and yet sufficiently unlike us that he never once succumbed to temptation but remained perfectly sinless?
iv. Since the success of God's plan of salvation depended on the perfect obedience of a free human agent (Christ), could God guarantee that his plan of salvation would not fail? If not, was it not a mere gamble rather than a foolproof plan? If so, how did God guarantee this without impinging on Christ's free will?
v. Can a person who is not ontologically one with God be granted the very prerogatives and honours that demarcate God's uniqueness? If God extends his unique "God-ness" to a sub-divine creature, does his "God-ness" not lose its uniqueness (and thereby cease to be "God-ness")?

No doubt proponents of a "merely human" Christology would offer intelligent answers to these questions. My point, however, is that the matter cannot just be settled out of court. Both sides have a case to argue and a case to answer.


My point in this article is not that reason compels us to accept the doctrine of the Incarnation. That argument would require a sharper intellect and a lot more space. My point is simply that reason cannot rule out the Incarnation a priori; that reason compels us to at least seriously consider this doctrine. In fact, anyone who rules out the Incarnation a priori effectively ensures that s/he will never be taken seriously as a Christian theologian.

I have, over time, become more and more convinced that our ecclesiology—our understanding of the nature, purpose and gifted prerogatives (or lack thereof) of the Church—determines, to a large degree, our other theological positions. It is a fact of history that the early Church reached a consensus that the Incarnation best explains the biblical and apostolic witness concerning the person of Christ. If I believe that the Church was guided by the Holy Spirit in her doctrinal deliberations, I will place considerable weight on this historic consensus. If, however, I believe that the Church was left to her own devices and inevitably wandered astray, I will consider it a light thing to cast aside the historic consensus and replace it with my own private judgment (perhaps identified facilely with "what the Bible teaches").


  • 1 Brian Hebblethwaite, The Incarnation: Collected Essays in Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 21. He adds: "The other central doctrine is that of the Trinity."
  • 2 Hebblethwaite, op. cit., 21.
  • 3 "Following, therefore, the holy fathers, we all in harmony teach confession of one and the same Son our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and the same perfect in manhood, truly God and the same truly man, of a rational soul and body, consubstantial with the Father in respect of the Godhead, and the same consubstantial with us in respect of the manhood, like us in all things apart from sin, begotten from the Father before the ages in respect of the Godhead, and the same in the last days for us and for our salvation from the Virgin Mary the Theotokos in respect of the manhood, one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation (the difference of the natures being in no way destroyed by the union, but rather the distinctive character of each nature being preserved and coming together in one person and one hypostasis), not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, Only-begotten, God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ, even as the prophets from of old and Jesus Christ himself taught us about him and the symbol of the fathers has handed down to us" (trans. Richard Price and Michael Gaddis, The Acts of the Council of Chalcedon: Translated with introduction and notes, vol. 1 [Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005], 59).
  • 4 Oliver Crisp, Divinity and Humanity: The Incarnation Reconsidered (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 166.
  • 5 In the wake of post-Vatican II ecumenical dialogue, there is now mutual recognition between Chalcedonian Christianity and the Oriental Orthodox (whose rejection of Chalcedonian Christology was the occasion of their existence as a separate communion) as well as the Assyrian Church of the East that historical Christological differences were a matter of semantics rather than substance.
  • 6 Of course, sectarian ecclesiology does not usually think in such terms. Sectarians often exult in their minority status and their rejection of established authority and tradition in line with their self-understanding as a "remnant." The notion of a righteous remnant does admittedly have a strong biblical pedigree. Much more could be said about such "remnant ecclesiology," but for now I will just say this: there are many groups today that make mutually exclusive claims to be God's righteous remnant. Clearly, all but one (if not all) of these groups are mistaken.
  • 7 When I made this argument recently in a Facebook dialogue, my Christadelphian interlocutor asked, "How is your 'long and illustrious pedigree' any more relevant than the 'long and illustrious pedigree' of Mohammed going to heaven on a horse?" The answer should be obvious. Given that one believes in a heavenly, transcendent God (Allah) and that Mohammed is his prophet, the idea of Mohammed going to heaven on a horse is not very paradoxical. Nor was this idea, to my knowledge, the occasion of epoch-making theological controversy in early Islam. I suspect that very few Christians reject Islam specifically because of the Muslim belief that Mohammed went to heaven on a horse (which is, after all, similar to Judeo-Christian beliefs about the prophet Elijah). It is precisely because of the very contentious and complex debates about Christology in the early church that a 1500-year consensus on the Incarnation is remarkable, and not easy to dismiss.
  • 8 Anna Marmodoro and Jonathan Hill, eds., The Metaphysics of the Incarnation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). On a similar note, see Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall and Gerald O'Collins, The Incarnation: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  • 9 Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986); Brian Hebblethwaite, The Incarnation: Collected Essays in Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Ronald J. Feenstra and Cornelius Plantinga, Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement: Philosophical and Theological Essays (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1989); James K. A. Smith, Speech and Theology: Language and the logic of the Incarnation (New York: Routledge, 2002); Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003); Marilyn McCord Adams, Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Oliver D. Crisp, Divinity and Humanity: The Incarnation Reconsidered (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Richard Cross, "The Incarnation," in Thomas P. Flint & Michael C. Rea, (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Oliver D. Crisp, God Incarnate: Explorations in Christology (London: T&T Clark, 2009); Andrew Ter Ern Loke, A Kryptic Model of the Incarnation (New York: Routledge, 2016); etc. Of course, the list would become much longer if we extended our scope beyond the English-language literature.
  • 10 I was misinterpreted as making such a claim recently when I made this appeal to scholarship in a Facebook discussion.

Thursday 3 April 2014

Logical arguments against the devil's existence: (3) 'The Devil made me do it'

This is the final installment in a series responding to logical arguments against the existence of a personal devil. Previously we looked at the empirical argument (which decries the lack of tangible evidence of the devil) and the theistic argument (which says an all-powerful, all-good God could not allow the devil to exist). We found that, upon closer examination, both of these arguments are self-defeating.

We now turn to an argument which is probably more popular than either of the other two. This argument is more often insinuated than stated logically, but it goes something like this: "People who believe in a personal devil tend to use it as a convenient excuse to avoid taking responsibility for their sins." The catchphrase that is often placed on the lips of these guilt-shirking Christians is, "The devil made me do it!"

As it stands, this is nothing more than an unsubstantiated ad hominem. There probably are people who use the devil as an excuse or a license for sin, but to my knowledge no evidence has been published to suggest a negative correlation between belief in the devil and perceived moral responsibility. Conversely, the studies of Swatos (1988)1 and Wilcox et al (1991)2 found a positive association between belief in the activity of Satan and political activism for moral causes. This is not what would be expected if belief in Satan inspires complacency toward sin.

However, let us return to the logical form of this argument. As a syllogism this argument might proceed something like this:

(1) If human beings were influenced by an evil tempter too powerful to resist, God would not hold them morally accountable for their sins.
(2) God holds all people morally accountable for their sins (apart from the redemptive work of Christ).
(3) Therefore, no person is influenced by an evil tempter too powerful to resist.

In this case, the conclusion (3) really does follow from the premises. However, it will be seen that premise (1) is not valid. Regardless of belief or disbelief in a personal devil, all Bible believing Christians would agree that human beings are influenced by the carnal mind, or sinful flesh. Paul is quite clear in Romans 6-7 that 'sin that dwells in us' is an evil tempter too powerful to resist, try as we might. We who are of the flesh are enslaved to sin, "sold under sin" (Romans 7:14). Paul is also clear throughout Romans (especially chapters 1-2, and see Romans 14:10) that God holds all people morally accountable for their sins.

Here is an inconvenient truth: all human beings, left to ourselves, are powerless to resist the temptation to sin which is built into our nature through no fault of our own. And yet God holds all human beings morally accountable for sinning. This is why, apart from faith in Jesus Christ we are utterly lost.

'The flesh' therefore serves as a counter-example to premise (1), and proves that sources of temptation - whether internal or external, powerful or weak - do not absolve human beings from guilt should they yield to the temptation and sin. In short, the existence of a personal devil is no more problematic for the issue of human moral responsibility than the existence of a fallen human nature. Said another way, if the syllogism above rules out the existence of the devil, it also rules out the existence of the carnal mind. Therefore, whoever believes in the carnal mind and in moral accountability cannot use this argument to disprove the devil's existence.

This is no different from human legal systems. The intentional criminal act of a sane person incurs guilt before the law, regardless of what pressures and influences the person faced. A judge might show leniency in sentencing a youth who ‘fell in with the wrong crowd’, but such circumstances do not remove the guilt.

This principle can be seen in the very first sin in the Garden of Eden. Adam tried to shift responsibility for his sin to Eve, and perhaps indirectly to God. Eve tried to shift responsibility for her sin to the serpent. However, God still held both of them responsible for their sins notwithstanding any external influences (even supernatural influences, in the serpent’s case, as it is difficult to see how the serpent came to have the powers of speech and reason naturally). In fact, God held the serpent morally responsible for luring Eve into sin, but this did not absolve Eve of her own guilt. Thus we can say generally that while external temptation may bring guilt upon the tempter (cf. Luke 17:1-2), it does not remove the guilt of the tempted if he or she yields to the temptation.

To conclude this series we can simply remark that these three logical objections have failed to dislodge the biblical testimony that mankind faces a great personal enemy called the devil and Satan. He cannot be detected by the scientific method, but then neither can angels, or God himself. His existence is compatible with God's limitless power and righteousness, because God is able to use evil to accomplish a greater good that is beyond our comprehension. His power over us is compatible with our own moral accountability, just like the carnal mind's power over us is.

Most importantly, Jesus Christ has promised that through him, the Father will "deliver us from the Evil One" (Matthew 6:13).

1 Swatos, William. (1988). Picketing Satan enfleshed at 7-Eleven: A research note. Review of Religious Research 30(3): 73-82 (September).

2 Wilcox, Clyde, Linzey, Sharon & Jelen, Ted G. (1991). Reluctant Warriors: Premillennialism and Politics in the Moral Majority. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 30(3): 245-258.

Sunday 23 March 2014

Logical arguments against the devil's existence: (2) the argument from theism

This is the second part of a three-part series looking at logical arguments which have been raised against the existence of a supernatural personal devil. In the previous installment we looked at the empirical argument, which denies the devil's existence on the basis of a lack of empirical evidence for his existence. We saw that this argument requires the professing Christian to maintain a double standard, because s/he is happy to believe in angels and the Holy Spirit in the absence of empirical evidence for their existence.

Another argument claims that if a supernatural, personal devil existed this would contradict the theistic view of God as omnipotent and absolutely good. If the devil roamed about wreaking havoc, this would imply either that God is unable to stop him (and therefore not omnipotent) or else that God is unwilling to stop him (and therefore not absolutely good). Thus we must either reject theism or else reject the existence of the devil.

In fact, this is nothing other than a special case of the argument from evil which has long been used by atheists to argue against the existence of God! The atheistic argument from evil goes like this:

1) A theistic (all-powerful and all-good) God would not allow evil to exist.
2) Evil exists.
3) Therefore, no theistic God exists.

The argument against the devil’s existence basically replaces ‘evil’ in the above syllogism with ‘the devil’ and then observes that if we assume the devil’s existence (premise 2) we arrive at an unacceptable conclusion, namely atheism. However, this argument is again self-defeating. If the above syllogism is valid then no theistic God exists, regardless of whether there is a devil. Hence, every professing Christian must reject the syllogism, and to use the very same logic to argue against the devil's existence would appear inconsistent.

On what basis do theists reject the above syllogism? The theist admits premise 2 but denies premise 1, at least with respect to every kind of evil whose existence he or she admits, such as nuclear disaster-inducing tsunamis and genocidal tyrants. How can theists deny premise 1? One approach is to argue that God may allow evil because in so doing he allows a greater good to be achieved than would be possible otherwise. This greater good could include things like free will, the prevention of even greater evils, character development through trials, and the joy of deliverance and salvation.

If a theist wanted to rework the syllogism above into an argument against the devil, s/he would need to show that, while premise 1 does not hold for evil in general, or for specific instances of evil such as tsunamis and tyrants, it does hold for a supernatural personal devil. The question is, why would premise 1 hold for a supernatural personal devil if it does not hold for any other kind of evil? What is it about the devil that makes it impossible for God to allow his existence but possible for God to allow Hitler's existence? Is it that a supernatural devil would be more evil and more powerful than Hitler? How far then does a being have to slide on the ‘evil scale’ or ‘power scale’ before it stops being morally justifiable for God to allow his existence and becomes morally reprehensible?

Put another way, if God could allow a being as evil and powerful as Hitler to exist because doing so allowed some greater good to be achieved, then couldn't God do the same for an even more evil and powerful being such as the devil? To deny that God could is to deny his omnipotence. Thus, ironically, the argument which sought to uphold theism actually undermines it.

The only other conceivable way to rescue premise 1 in the special case of the devil is to argue that the natural/supernatural or human/angelic distinction fundamentally alters the logic. However, such ontological distinctions are of no logical consequence. An archangel and an ant are equally powerless to thwart the prerogatives of an infinite God.

Tuesday 25 February 2014

Logical arguments against the devil's existence: (1) the empirical argument

In my discussions with Christadelphians (and reflection upon my own past way of thinking), my perception has been that Christadelphians widely consider belief in a personal, supernatural devil to be intellectually bankrupt. This doctrine is seen not only as primitive (an objection by no means limited to Christadelphians) but also as logically incompatible with basic biblical doctrine concerning both God and humanity.

Personally I prefer to approach theological subjects biblically rather than philosophically. Nevertheless, as I have reflected upon three logical arguments that have been repeatedly raised against the devil’s existence, it has occurred to me that these arguments are largely self-defeating. I hope that you will find the following reasoning helpful to you in formulating your own worldview.

  1.  The Empirical Argument

One argument that has been used to show that the devil is illogical may be termed the empirical argument: none of us have observed a supernatural personal being tempting us; therefore such a devil does not tempt us. It should be apparent that, stated so baldly, this argument is self-defeating. If this logic disproves the devil’s active existence, it also disproves the active existence of angels, the Holy Spirit, and even God. One could say, none of us have observed angels protecting us; therefore angels do not protect us. None of us have observed God working in our lives; therefore God is not at work in our lives.

In the first place, this argument is wrong to assume that just because you or I have not experienced the activity of God, the Holy Spirit, angels, or the devil in an observable way, neither has anyone else. Even more problematic is the fallacy that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. As theists we do not refuse to believe in God because He does not make Himself visible to us. Why should we deny the devil’s existence because he does not make himself visible to us?

Another version of this argument relies on the testimony of Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the wilderness. If this devil is understood to be a personal being, then the encounter was vivid and empirically verifiable: the devil and Jesus engaged in dialogue, and the devil demanded worship from Jesus which implies he was visible. If the devil is personal then according to this template he ought to be both visible and audible when he tempts a person. Indeed, Hebrews 4:15 has been described as a guarantee that Jesus was tempted in the same way you and I are. Since we don’t have visual and auditory encounters with a supernatural personal tempter, neither did Jesus.

In fact, Hebrews 4:15 does not say that we are tempted in all points like Jesus was, but that he was tempted in all points like we are. Besides this exegetical misstep, the argument is again self-defeating. On any reading of the temptations in the wilderness, Jesus was not tempted in the same way you and I are. Have you ever been tempted to turn stones into bread? Have you ever been tempted to commit an act of worship and thereby achieve world domination? I very much doubt it. You would have to admit, I think, that Jesus’ temptations were not only quite unlike yours and mine; they were completely exceptional, and unmistakably supernatural in character. Yes, in their scope Jesus’ temptations not only matched ours but far exceeded them.

The bottom line is that Jesus’ overt, visible encounters with the supernatural were exceptional and not characteristic of ordinary human experience. The fact that angels did not publicly announce my birth does not persuade me that angels do not exist. The fact that the Holy Spirit did not descend on me like a dove at my baptism does not persuade me that the Holy Spirit does not exist. And the fact that the devil does not speak to me audibly or whisk me to the top of high buildings does not persuade me that the devil does not exist. All this convinces me of is that every aspect of Jesus' life was far more momentous than mine; indeed that Jesus is an absolutely unique member of the human race (a point which was not lost on the spirit world).

As such, the fact that we do not experience encounters with the devil in the same way Jesus did is no reason for us to dismiss or radically reinterpret the empirical evidence for the devil's activity which is contained in the Gospel narratives - and probably based ultimately on Jesus' own eyewitness testimony.

In summary, the empirical argument against the devil’s existence is not only unconvincing; it has more in common with atheistic materialism than a Christian worldview.

We will look at two other logical arguments in the next two posts.